The second time I cried while in Court was at the end of a trial in which a young mother under 35 was found guilty on two charges of aggravated battery...and was now facing LIFE.
Because of the multiple bill rule in Louisiana, her prior charges counted against her and this mother of two was now facing Life Without Parole. It took a jury of 6 people approximately 35 minutes to determine her guilt. The defense wasn’t allowed to tell the jury that she could be facing life but still, only 35 minutes. And this was probably because it was 7:00pm after a two day trial and the jury wouldn’t be allowed to go home for the day until a verdict was reached.
When the Judge read the verdict, I will NEVER forget that mother's cry out to God. I will never forget the chills that ran through my body. The tears that flowed, tears that, even now, threaten to fall as I describe that experience, could not be suppressed. The young lady fell to the floor and and her lawyer, a public defender, fell down with her, hugging and crying. It was heartbreaking. The judge continued with the formalities of thanking the jury and walking them out. The sheriffs in the courtroom stood still, no emotions showing. The state's attorneys packed up their items, another "win" on their end. My friend and I, two law clerks who had just started our internship with the Orleans Public Defenders Office couldn’t take it and had to walk out. On the way out, we passed the lady’s family who was distraught and crying as well. One of the jurors, a young black lady, probably realizing what guilty meant for the client, walked out crying as well.
I felt so hopeless and ready to quit at that moment. Week 2 and I was already ready to throw in the towel. How could this mother of two be facing life without even having killed anyone? How could her past charges count against her like this? Whyyy? Somehow I felt connected to her and this was maybe because I stayed and watched the entire trial both days, only missing the first few opening hours of jury selection. I listened to all the evidence and witness statements and pieced together what I believed happened. And I do not believe she deserved to be found guilty. Throughout the trial, I kept watching her family and sending them subtle smiles of hope. The client would turn around and look into the audience and I would stare at her not knowing if I should smile, wave, or what, because even though I didn’t know her, I felt like she was my sis. Maybe because I have a cousin her age, with a full life ahead of her. Maybe because I too am a black girl who can easily find myself in the same circumstance. That’s scary.
And I know your thoughts, “Girl you have to toughen up.” I did and I have. But “toughening up” does not mean to stop caring or stop feeling any emotions, because then we become just like the system. I don't cry (in court) anymore but I felt and still feel many emotions because I am human and I realize that our clients are human too.
After walking out of the Courtroom, I sat in the hallway of the Courthouse. I wanted so badly to speak to the family but I didn’t know what to say. I at least wanted to hug them to let them know that I felt their pain as well. Before one of her I assume cousins, left however, she turned to me and said, “Thank you for staying.” I started crying all over again. I realized then that sometimes our presence is enough. I couldn’t quit, because my presence, even though small, meant something. That night I went home numb and with a terrible migraine. I didn’t enter the courthouse again until that next week.
Listen, mass incarceration is real. And it is sickening.
I had never been to a courthouse or went on a jail visit while growing up although I’ve had a few family members experience that side of the justice system. So my first day going to court with my attorney had my stomach in knots. There were so many black men in orange suits and chains. They were marched in and knew where to sit and to not say a word. Public Defenders and District Attorneys were everywhere. The benches in the audience were filled with clients on probation, or clients who had bonded out and could handle their case outside of jail, or family members who anxiously waited and watched to see what would happen with their loved ones. A few of the seats were occupied by clerks, like me. The judge was moving the docket of cases quickly. It honestly operates as a machine. Clients are called to the podium, the lawyers state a few words that I’m sure the client doesn’t really understand, and then they are more than likely given another court date a month or two out. It is so many steps that happen before a decision is actually made on a case or before a client accepts a plea deal (which actually happens 90% of the time) so a court date doesn’t really mean a release or sentencing date.
My first time doing a jail visit with my attorney was different as well, but better than being in court. I felt awkward because there is only one seat for the attorney so I stood there with my laptop out ready to type every word. My attorney stopped me however, and said, no need. She later explained that it can be overwhelming to the client for both of us to be typing notes so she just handled it. I understood. The visiting room was small and empty, sort of sterile, like a hospital room. There was a phone but we didn’t use it. We just spoke loud enough to hear each other through the small opening at the bottom of the glass window. The client was at least allowed to be unshackled by the hands and was free to say whatever since it was a lawyer visit. By the end of the summer I was doing jail visits on my own once or twice a week, visiting 2-3 clients in one day. Attorney visits could take place 24 hours a day and it seemed no matter what time I went in between 8am and 6pm, there was always a long line of attorneys and clerks there to see their clients. I was nervous at first but most of my clients were happy to see me and could relate very easily to me. They always gave me hope when leaving although in reality, I was trying to give them hope.
If I was to explain every experience while working as a clerk for the public defenders office, I’m sure I’d be able to write a book. In summary, there were a lot of ups and downs.
There were (so many) frustrating moments:
- watching and transcribing body camera footage of officers with no care in the world of how they handled incidents,
- visiting clients with no news about their case because the DAs still hadn’t accepted or refused their charges,
- going to court over and over again prepared for trial just for it to be pushed back again,
- or listening to my attorney fight for bond reductions or jail releases only for her requests to be denied.
There were sad moments:
- watching a client try to represent himself during a trial in which he was charged with 2nd Degree Murder and against two BLACK state attorneys,
- talking to parents and grandmothers on the phone asking what can be done and begging for help,
- listening to clients in jail tell me about how terrible jail is,
- trying to find the bright spot in a case where it seemed ALL odds were stacked against a client,
- or seeing a client so frustrated that he didn’t want to speak with my attorney even though she was trying really hard to do everything she could.
There were joyful moments:
- a client was found not guilty for 2nd Degree Murder,
- a bond reduction motion I wrote was so well written that my attorney made no changes to it,
- my first client whose case I worked on was found not guilty on his charges,
- and I was able to visit a client and tell him his charges would be dismissed and that he was finally going home.
There were also funny moments:
- a client found me on Instagram and I was shocked as to how lol,
- another client asked me to follow him on Instagram during a visit (I didn’t),
- and one client told me the next time I saw him it’d be at a dinner table (I’m flattered)!
There were a lot of moments that COUNTED:
- Going to visit clients after not having a visit in weeks,
- listening to the client’s side of the story when no one else would listen,
- writing bond reduction motions, investigation requests, and watching hours of body camera footage,
- and simply going to court and shadowing my attorney to learn what it's like doing her job.
There were about 60 clerks working this summer and only 10 of us were black. The interns came from the most elite law schools and I thought I would struggle working alongside them. However, they are some of the most hardworking people who value fairness and equal justice for the marginalized. To each of you: we made it and we did it. I have gained a close friend and sister/brother in many of you and I cannot wait to hear more about how you work to dismantle mass incarceration throughout your legal journeys.
My entire summer was truly a growing and learning experience. I walked into law school stating that I would not be a Criminal Defense Attorney and now I know that my journey will include some years (or maybe a lifetime, who knows) of doing just that. The pay is just so low and even though I'm not working for money I still want to make a good living. But I know my gifts will make room for me.
I worked under the most amazing and I do mean AMAZING attorney! Happy and Sappy :) I also visited Angola, or the “Louisiana State Penitentiary” as they formally call it now, and I STILL don’t know what to say about that. A separate blog post for that visit will have to be made. I enjoyed time with the clerks working in one huge room of 20 tables, (one which had Ping Pong set up on it), and THE SLOWEST Wifi connection. We had many debates about Drake, Wale, and Cardi B. We partied hard and worked just as hard. We cried a few times, laughed often, and asked “What do I do?” probably everyday. BUT WE DID IT.
FOR YOU AND ANYONE WHO IS INCARCERATED:
- Go to jury duty!! African Americans HAVE to stop avoiding jury duty. I've seen how they are selected with my own eyes! (And while at jury duty, don’t vent and fuss about how much you hate the justice system because the DAs will not select you as a juror and WE NEED YOU)
- Don’t speak about ANY ASPECT of your case on the phone while in jail. It is recorded and not only do we listen to the calls but so do the DAs and they take any comment and twist it as evidence to use against you in your case
- Mass incarceration is more than just being in jail: it’s also being unable to get a job or vote when you’re released; it’s being seen as a criminal instead of a human; it’s giving you crazy lengths of probation time setting you up to fail; it’s high court fees and bonds knowing you can’t afford it (this has been struck down in New Orleans, PRAISE GOD), and so much more.
- Tell your lawyer THE TRUTH, this helps sooo much!
- Don’t get arrested in Louisiana, or really anywhere but especially Louisiana.
- Public defenders are not bad lawyers, they actually work REALLY hard, most of them SEVEN days of the week, and they care a lot about each of their clients.
- YOU MATTER. WE MATTER. YOU ARE HUMAN.
READ THESE BOOKS
And of course I read a ton of books this summer that shed so much more light on mass incarceration for me. I HIGHLY, HIGHLY, HIGHLY suggest you to read one or all of these books:
- Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.
- A book that discusses how mass incarceration began (mainly in DC) and how black people played a role in it.
- I Can’t Breathe: Matt Taibbi
- The story of Eric Gardner and his family stemming back from his youth and right up to moments before his death. It also describes in detail how the system works to find an officer not guilty and in turn provide no justice for the family and the murdered. Touches on the justice system in New York mainly
- Just Mercy: Bryan Stevenson
- A book about death row, capital defense, and mass incarceration; also touches on child imprisonment and women imprisonment. Mainly discusses the justice system in Alabama but also Florida, California, and Louisiana.
- The Hate U Give: Angie Thomas
- The movie comes out soon, read the book first! It’s a fiction novel about a police shooting a black boy but it’s VERY realistic and very good!
- The Other Wes Moore: Wes Moore
- Two men named with the exact same name; raised very near to each other, but took completely different life paths. One ends up in jail and the other very successful. Every black boy/man should read this.
So that was my summer working at Orleans Public Defenders! If only I could provide in depth, more details. Yes, public defenders represent the accused. And yes, sometimes people make bad decisions. That does not mean however, that they are NOT human, that they don’t deserve fairness, or that they are bad people. And do know that there is always more than one side to a story. Above all know that people of color are locked up in disproportionate numbers and the communities we come from set us up for failure. I do hope that this post has shed some light on why it is critical to know our rights, protect our own, and work to END MASS INCARCERATION. May God bless each of you. Feel free to message me or comment with any thoughts, questions, or feedback.